Manhattan House

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Manhattan House

Learning about the special interest community for Native and indigenous students

by Virginia Ambeliotis


Most Columbia students have never heard of Manhattan House, one of the Special Interest Communities located in SIC House. Formed in 2012 by the Native American Council as a community for indigenous students, the house is named in recognition of the Lenni Lenape, the first people to inhabit the island of Manhattan.


Because the residence—a floor on 619 West 113th Street—is SIC Housing, it is not under the full jurisdiction of Native and indigenous groups. Nevertheless, Manhattan House plays an important role in fostering pride in Native identity, spreading awareness of indigenous issues, and mediating relations between Native communities and the University. Three doubles, nine singles, four bath- rooms and a common area make up the residence, which is open to Native and indigenous students and allies. A majority of occupants identify as indigenous and hail from the Americas or the Pacific Islands.


“It’s a very freeing space,” Elsa Hoover, CC ’17 says. Hoover is Algonquin Anishinaabe Canada First Nations and has lived in the house for a year and a half. She explains that while indigenous students come from different backgrounds, many have similar values and experiences. For starters, the communities residents hail from are often rural and tightly knit, so enrolling in a large urban university like Columbia can be a big transition.


Then there are other challenges. In academic settings, especially Core classes, indigenous stu- dents can encounter “materials [that] directly challenge their humanity.” Hoover says she knows a resident who was asked to debate whether indigenous people had souls—on the negative side. Classmates occasionally offer remarks like “I thought Native people were all dead. I didn’t even know you existed.”


For many indigenous students at Columbia, Manhattan House provides a much-needed break from these types of stresses. Organizations such as the Chicanx Caucus, Columbia Mentoring Initiative and the Native American Council frequently convene in the common room, whose walls are adorned with donated art and flags of residents’ respective nations. Beating circles, traditional arts and NACflix (screenings put on by NAC) are also hosted there.


Ironically, many Native and indigenous Columbia students who might be interested in living in the residence face institutional and financial barriers to access. Housing is open to Columbia College and SEAS students only—Barnard, G.S. and graduate students are not eligible to apply—and because fees range on the expensive side ($10,120 this year), many Native students can’t afford to live there.


When Manhattan House has spots it can’t fill, Housing places transfer students in them. Because these students aren’t screened according to their interest in the residence’s objectives, problems some- times emerge. Hoover recalls incidents involving students “using racist language” or making other residents answer ignorant questions, but she mentions that other transfer assignments have worked out well.


To maintain inclusivity in the face of these obstacles, residents remain focused on spreading awareness about Manhattan House’s mission and the peoples the residence aims to serve. “Because it’s not a well-known community and the indigenous community is perceived as very small, we have a lot of freshmen who don’t know about us at all,” Hoover explains. “Manhattan House exists to rectify that.”